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Chinese students get jail for beating, burning classmates

Yunyao Zhai steps into court for sentencing hearing. Photo: LA Times

Three students from China were sentenced Wednesday to years in prison after prosecutors said they stripped, beat and burned two classmates.

The defendants and victims were "parachute kids" who studied in Southern California while their parents remained back home.

Yunyao "Helen" Zhai was sentenced to 13 years behind bars; Yuhan "Coco" Yang got 10 years; and Xinlei "John" Zhang received a six-year term. All three apologized in court for their actions.

"I hope they do not carry the wounds from what I did for the rest of their lives," Zhai wrote of the victims in a statement read by her attorney.

The 19-year-olds were accused of bullying a 16-year-old girl who was punched and slapped last March at a restaurant and a park in Rowland Heights, east of Los Angeles.

Two days later, prosecutors say, they kidnapped an 18-year-old classmate and took her to a park where she was stripped, beaten, punched, kicked, spat on, burned with cigarettes and forced to eat her own hair during a five-hour assault.

The 16-year-old was attacked because Zhai felt she had disrespected her, and the other woman was attacked because of disputes over a boy and an unpaid restaurant bill, investigators said.

The defendants pleaded no contest last month to kidnapping and assault. A charge of torture, which carries a potential life sentence, was dropped.

They are among thousands of Chinese students studying in the U.S. Many stay with host families who are paid to provide room, board and substitute parenting. Many have flocked to San Gabriel Valley suburbs east of downtown Los Angeles.

In her statement, Zhai said living so far from her parents played a role in her actions.

"They sent me to the U.S. for a better life and a fuller education," she said. "Along with that came a lot of freedom, in fact too much freedom."

"Here, I became lonely and lost," she wrote. "I didn't tell my parents because I didn't want them to worry about me."

Yang said the case was a wakeup call for "parachute kid syndrome."

"Parents in China are well-meaning and send their kids thousands of miles away with no supervision and too much freedom," Yang said in a letter read by her attorney. "That is a formula for disaster."

The victims weren't in court Wednesday but prosecutor Casey Jarvis said the woman who was stripped and burned has forgiven her attackers.

"She's a happy person, and that was taken from her repeatedly. But somehow she was able to find forgiveness," he told the judge.

A 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy were previously sentenced to juvenile camp for their roles in attacks. Another man, Zheng Lu, 20, is facing trial on charges of kidnapping, torture and assault.

Investigators say they believe other teenagers involved in the attacks have left the country.


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